Philadelphia's Great Unless You're a Sick Student at a School Filled With Asbestos and Lead

Philadelphia’s on the rise! The Eagles won the Super Bowl. Michelle Obama led an all star cast of celebrities to celebrate thousands of graduating high school seniors on College Signing Day. Neighborhoods in the northeast section of the city are among the most swiftly developing (read: gentrifying) urban areas in the entire country. New riverside pedestrian walkways, bike lanes, luxury high rises, and innumerable restaurants and coffee shops are transforming Philadelphia into an urban oasis. Unless, of course, you’re a student getting sick at one of Philadelphia’s asbestos and lead-filled schools. In a recent report from the Philadelphia Inquirer, an exorbitantly high number of Philadelphia’s public schools are filled with insanely high levels of toxic materials. To put it in perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency considers an environment toxic if there are more than 40 micrograms per square foot of hazardous material on the floor and 250 on a windowsill. Guess how many were found in a classroom in North Philadelphia. 9,800. This, of course, is in addition to the mice, mold, exposed wiring and layers of peeling paint that adorn the learning spaces where nearly 130,000 children spend the vast majority of their young lives. It’s no surprise that children are getting sick. But it’s also no surprise that such conditions exist within a cash-strapped district that is chronically underfunded due to a majority low-income tax base and a state government that would rather not step up to the plate. To me, this is just another symptom of America’s voluntary and tacit racial and economic segregation. There is no way a wealthy suburban community would tolerate such a school environment for their children. Heads would roll. Politicians would make speeches to appease their rightfully infuriated voters. Parents would demonstrate, lambasting the school system for endangering their children. But for urban kids living in poverty, such pathetic learning environments are acceptable, taken for granted, and, thus, ignored. When I think of these injustices, I picture a student seated at a rickety table or age-old desk. The lights flicker. Wires creep out through missing patches in the ceiling. Mold extends out from the cold radiators while paint chips crunch under the teacher’s feet. And day after day, breath after toxic breath, the child learns that this environment is precisely what they are worth. And that’s the crime.
Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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